Eritrea’s military dictatorship systematically persecutes its own people and those who oppose the system. Many Eritreans who flee are abducted during the journey, brought to the Sinai and tortured for ransom. This October (2014), human rights activist and journalist Meron Estefanos spoke at our event “Trafficking of women in Sinai”* in Berne. She works for the International Eritrean Radio Erena and is a co-founder of the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees in Stockholm. Estefanos was born in Eritrea and lives in Sweden since the age of 14.
Every day, Meron Estefanos talks to Eritreans in difficult situations: women and men being held captive, the crew of a refugee boat drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as relatives searching desperately for their close ones who have disappeared in the desert call her. Estefanos listens and tries to help if she can. In her radio show, she tells these tough stories because she wants Eritrean people to know them. At our event in Bern, she talked about the case of a woman who was captivated and brought to the Sinai: she was tortured and so was her young child. The little boy has finally been released, but his mother died in the torture camp. This is only one of many stories, an example of the cruel mistreatments that are happening in the Sinai.
Meron, are you satisfied with the event “Trafficking of women in Sinai”?
I am really glad that we had a full house. It is so good to see that a lot of people are interested in Eritrea and human trafficking in the Sinai. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to talk about the root causes of the problem: the dictatorship. The living conditions in Eritrea are very bad. For example, every man and every woman must serve in the military from the age of 15 till 50. Women with children are exempt, but their husbands aren’t. So many women must carry the burden of feeding and raising the children alone.
There is no freedom of religion, no freedom of movement, no freedom of speech. People are even afraid to say that they are hungry, because it might be interpreted as a political statement: “Are you saying there is starvation in Eritrea?” If your brother gets arrested, you are not allowed to ask what he did – asking is a crime. That’s why people flee. In Eritrea, the children don’t have dreams anymore. I asked 8- or 9-year-old children about their aspirations: nobody said “doctor”, nobody said “pilot”. They said: “I’m going to be a soldier.” And the saddest thing is that their career aspirations are very realistic: all their sisters, brothers, fathers and grandfathers are in the military, so it’s all they know.
Many Eritreans who leave their country get kidnapped during the journey and are tortured for ransom. Which are the specific dangers that women face?
They also get kidnapped and tortured. And they face sexual violence too, even the young girls. Even if they are released, it is very tough for them, because they feel ashamed. In our culture we don’t talk about rape because it is seen as something instigated by a woman. So they deny it and say: “it didn’t happen to me, it happened to the other women.” They worry of not having a life afterwards because nobody would agree to marry them. So they hide it instead of working on the issue of the trauma.
In March 2014, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Security and Human Trafficking in the Sinai. Has the situation improved since?
I am very happy about the resolution since I have been lobbying for it for the last 4 years. But it isn’t enough: Egypt still completely ignores the problem! The EU frequently raises the issue on the meetings with Egypt, but all too often the words are only hot air. The same applies for the United States: they tell Egypt to tackle the problem, but continue to give money to the government. Come on, they should tell them: “We are stopping this money until you are stopping the human rights violations in Sinai.” But Egypt is a very important ally to Europe and to the US. So they try to make everybody happy: they grant money so the Egyptian government is happy – they write a resolution so we are happy.
Is there a thing Switzerland could do about it?
Many Eritreans flee to Switzerland. And every time I come here, Swiss politicians tell me that they cannot be integrated. This is weird because German politicians always tell me that Eritreans are the ones who easily integrate into the system. I doubt that the Eritreans are the problem. So Switzerland should look at its system and ask where it is failing. Any human being can integrate, but you have to know how.
Do you have an idea what the problem might be?
Well, let’s start with the media. How many rapes happen here in Switzerland by Swiss men? If a single one is done by a migrant, the media only write about that one. In Sweden, things are different: media are not supposed to generalize. They write “one man stabbed another one,” but they don’t write about their backgrounds. There is no law about it, but it simply is inhumane to generalize that much. So they don’t. The generalization incites hate; it helps people to hate other people. Every human being is different and people should start looking at each case individually. And Eritreans also need to find a way to learn about Swiss people, about their food, about their culture. In Sweden for example, they have to go to practices. They have to work or take classes. It is important that the society invests in them. It is too easy to say: “they cannot be integrated.”
What is your dream for Eritrea?
In Switzerland, people vote four times a year. We’ve never voted, we’ve never had one single election. My dream is a country where we can elect our president, where we have a parliament, where people are judged by the law. For this to happen, Eritreans have to stand up for their rights. But they also need help. Only a few countries implemented the sanctions of the UN-Security Council. As long as there is money going to the Eritrean government, the suffering of Eritrean people will not end. So the only way is to stop supporting and to take drastic measures against the Eritrean government.
Interview: Caroline Honegger, PWAG Communication Manager
Pictures: taken by Corinne Wenger in Berne on October 30th at the event “Trafficking of women in Sinai”
*The event has been jointly organized by PWAG and the Swiss Observatory for asylum and foreigners law (SBAA).